Pacing Ourselves For the Long Haul (Plague, Day 20, March 23, 2020)

11:00am — I calmed down a bit this weekend. I’ve been on overdrive for the past 14 days. Longer, if you include Ian’s medical emergency that happened in the beginning of the month.

I still had a ton of stuff do around the house, but I wasn’t totally stressed out about getting something published. My USA Today article about the impact of the school closures on kids with disabilities came out on Saturday morning and is continuing to do really well.

Every day, I give thanks that Ian’s health emergency happened before things got nasty. My uncle in Florida is in the hospital in ICU all by himself. The family can’t visit him. My cousin, Jenn, is getting chemo and is extremely immune compromised. They’re suffering alone and vulnerable. I worry about them every day.

On Sunday, Steve and Jonah brought all his college crap home. They did two trips back and forth with two cars. Now, I’m organizing space in the basement to make room for a mattress, box spring, dresser, desk, microwave, and all the other crap that he won’t need until he gets another apartment sometime down the line. He was slated to move into a dorm next fall, but who knows what will happen.

This mess isn’t going to be wrapped up in a tidy little bow in another week, as much as our president would like that. We’re looking at months of destruction to our economy and way of life.

I drove around this weekend just to get out of the house. I passed people lining up to get into Whole Foods, jogging along the side of the road, kicking a soccer ball on an empty school field. How many of them will be sick in another week or two? We’re all walking time bombs.

A disaster with a long tail is going to have a major impact on a whole generation of kids. How many are never going to go back to college this fall? How many will lose friends and family members? How will life in an economic tailspin impact them? Will they become compulsive hoarders, like our grandparents, stockpiling cans of beans and toilet paper in the basement?

I sat Jonah down this weekend and asked him how he was doing. Boys need to be asked directly how they feel about things, because they tend to swallow up their emotions.

Jonah said that he was missing his friends enormously. He was sad for other friends that would miss graduation and other milestone celebrations. He’s been chatting almost constantly with friends through social media, but being stuck in his parents’ house isn’t a fun time. Today is his first day of online college education.

I’m most worried about Ian. In some ways, he’s well prepared for life on a computer, because he excels with anything that deals with technology. For him, the problem isn’t math problems on Khan Academy, but the fact that he’s separated from real people and from structure. He’s in mourning.

After talking to Ian’s teachers today, we’re all agreed that they will check in him once a day for the continuity and social contact. He doesn’t have any friends, so he really needs to keep contact with teachers ,and for Steve and I to make sure that we talk long walks with conversations every day. We can’t let him lock himself in his brain.

I need to take a break from this make hard boiled eggs for egg salad sandwiches for lunch. The grind of prepping three meals a day is already tiresome. Back later.

When schools close or go online, what happens to students with disabilities? (Plague, Day 19, March 22, 2020)

I’m a parent of a high school student with high functioning autism and epilepsy. As schools all around the country announce shutdowns and move towards online education, kids like mine are going to suffer the most.

The move to online education, which has been largely driven by the imperative to maintain the 180-day minimum without taxing already stretched budgets or running afoul of teachers’ contracts, will be difficult to manage. To date, nearly 42 million students. have already been impacted. Will teachers and administrators manage to create an entire system of online K-12 education from scratch in a handful of days? Do teachers have the technological skills, equipment, or experience to implement those plans? Do families have enough computers for themselves and all their children? The questions are endless.

We’re in the midst of a huge educational experiment and really have no way of knowing how it will work out.  There are even more problems and questions around online special education.  

More here.

Excerpt From Newsletter, It's The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine!, (Plague, Day 18, March 21, 2020)

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It’s The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine! 
Apt. 11D, 3/20/20

Hi all!

What I’ve witnessed in the past week is the absolute implosion of public education. Who knew that this 100-year old institution would falter so severely? I suppose that at this moment in time, schools are the least of our problems, but I’m still going to talk about them anyway. 

In the past week, more than half of all school districts in the country shut their doors. Some shut down entirely. Some are doing some sort of online education. But nobody knows for sure, because only one online education journal is keeping track. And this journal doesn’t even know which schools are shutting down entirely and which ones are attempting some sort online education. Nobody knows. Isn’t that weird? 

Or maybe it’s not weird. We have a system of hyper-local schools in this country, which is hopelessly inefficient and expensive. This is just one of the many problems with public education that is being exposed by this pandemic. 

Perhaps even more important than its job in the provision of learning and wisdom, our schools feed the nation’s poor. And as we’re discovering, it is also a system of childcare for just about everyone, regardless of income. When the school system collapses, children go hungry, and parents get fired from work. 

The other problem with our education system is that nobody is in charge of this mess. It’s all up to each town. So, each town is handling this crisis differently. A thousand different superintendents are coming up with a thousand different plans. And some of these plans royally suck. Some closed the schools for two weeks and formed a coherent plan. Others shut the schools for an afternoon — just a couple of hours really — to figure out how to put together an education plan for thousands of children. 

Some schools are having their teachers do online classes using programs like Zoom during the old classroom hours. Other schools are just putting up some worksheets on Google classrooms. None of them have a proper plan for how to deal with special education. And guess which school districts have the worst plans? Yes, the poor ones of course. So, by the end of this crisis, the kids in the richer schools will be just fine, and the kids in the poorer districts will be further behind. Surprised? Yeah, of course not. 

Some school districts are trying to pretend that parents are partners in all of this. Ha. Partners are usually consulted and paid for their time. Parents are pissed. I would be surprised if any school district is still maintaining this illusion of online education by the end of March.  

And the states seem to agree. Some, like Michigan, have said that none of this online stuff will count towards graduation or their 180-day requirements. Schools will have to educate kids during the summer to make up for lost time. In other states, the teachers’ unions will presumably have a meltdown about plans to teach in the summer, but we haven’t heard from the unions yet, so who knows? 

My guess is that summer school will happen for sure, because there’s no way that these inconsistent, half-baked online classes can be considered a proper education. The programs that rely on parents are especially problematic, because parents aren’t certified teachers, and the unions have made all sorts of laws about certification that can’t be undone easily. Between state constitutions and federal special education laws, schools will be in a bind. They will have to figure out how to make up these hours at a later date. 

The one hope with all this mess is that we are getting a better understanding of all the problems in society and government. The pandemic will shine like a black light on a crime scene and show us what we need to do better.  Maybe we should have a Universal Basic Income. Maybe workers in a gig economy need more protections. In terms of education, we are definitely going to need a much higher level of centralization and leadership than we have now. We are also going to have to separate schools from other social services; schools can’t wear too many hats. 

Here at Apt. 11D, my family is doing fine. We’re a little stir crazy. All this togetherness isn’t easy, especially with a semi-independent college kid in the mix. But we’re healthy, most importantly. 

This newsletter was always supposed to be a bi-monthly enterprise, but with the crisis, I’ll be here more often. I’ve got an op-ed coming out in the am tomorrow in USA Today. Look for it! 

Be well! Laura

Coronavirus Survival — Cooking From the Pantry, Baked Pasta Recipe

So, what staples do you have in pantry? Beans, pasta, root vegetables, some dairy, meat in the freezer, cans of tomatoes? Need some ideas for all that? I can help.

Last night we made chili, which we will have again tonight with baked sweet potatoes. Tomorrow’s lunch will be chili dogs. Here’s my chili recipe.

Today, let me share the most basic of recipes, Baked Pasta. Super easy. And a local favorite. With Steve and I eating low carb stuff lately, I haven’t made this dish in ages. With a house of boys, it seemed like a good time to return to a classic.

Baked Pasta, Jersey Style

  • 1 box of Pasta (acceptable shapes penne, medium shells, ziti, cellentani)
  • 1 or 2 eggs, depending on size. This is just to bind everything together
  • 1 jar of sauce (pay more for better)
  • 1 large brick of Polly-O mozzarella
  • 1/2 plus two spoons of the medium container of Polly-O ricotta
  • 3/4 of a bag of spinach
  • parsley
  • parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
  2. Prepare the guts. Chop the mozzarella into small squares. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the mozzarella. Chop up the fresh spinach. Mix together the mozzarella, ricotta (remember don’t use the whole container), half a cup of parmesan cheese, lots of fresh pepper, 1 egg, and spinach.
  3. Prepare the pasta in salted water. Cook until very al dente. Like still a little white in the middle. Drain. Do not rinse pasta. Add about half the jar of sauce to your pasta. I used some generic Whole Foods sauce for this. There is some much better stuff on the shelf these days, as well as homemade, of course, but I don’t think that’s necessary for a baked dish like this. All the effort should go into bringing good stuff together.

4. Now you’re ready to build. Add a glug of the sauce to the bottom of a baking pan. Then add 1/3 of the semi-cooked pasta. Then add half of the cheese combo, then 1/3 of the semi-cooked pasta, 1/2 of the cheese guts, last of the semi-cooked pasta on top.

5. On top of the pasta layers, pour out the rest of the sauce and spread it around with a spoon. Add the last of the mozzarella, more parmesan cheese, and freshly chopped parsley. Cover everything with aluminum foil.

6. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes until the cheese is bubbling all the way through and the pasta is entirely cooked. By this time, the spinach will be cooked, too. If you like your pasta dish slightly crispy, take off the aluminum foil ten minutes before it’s finished.

There are plenty of ways to upgrade this dish and make it more interesting. You can make a white sauce or add different kinds of meat and vegetables.

Plague, Day 17, March 20, 2020

10 am — There’s a guy on my Facebook page, who says that the virus can be cured by breathing in the steam from a pot of boiling water.

As we all hunker down in our bunkers, cancel our house cleaners, and avoid restaurants, we must turn to Martha Stewart to remind us how to fold fitted sheets and make a nice lasagna. (Buy her stock, btw.)

Lamar Alexander (R-TN) proposed a provision in the stimulus bill that would wave the Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for 1 year.

When federal bailout money is distributed, don’t forget parents — alright, mostly mothers — who have to quit jobs, take salary cuts, put in 18-hour unpaid hours, because schools & childcare are closed. Esp. parents of disabled kids. This isn’t a fun playdate at home.

My college kid, who had planned to spend this spring break week in Alaska, has been very helpful and surprisingly philosophical about these changes, until last night, when he snuck out to have drinks at a friend’s house. He put the uber payment on our credit card, so he was awoken at 8am to screaming parents. He’ll be scrubbing the entire house today. Perhaps he’ll be enlisted in the Coast Guard later, too.

We’re settling into the new normal. Steve puts in a normal day 8 – 6, but at here in the home office. My work world is incredibly busy and incredibly unpaid. Ian’s home school experience is improving, mostly because I am totally uninvolved, and the teachers are too afraid of me to send me anymore emails.. I have some thoughts about what’s going on in public education, but I might write that up for another newsletter.

I’m going to post some pantry staple recipes soon.

Plague, 16, March 19, 2020

10am — Lots of info/tips/suggestions:

1. As a photographer, a friend’s business is shutdown. Luckily, her husband’s job is solid, so they’re not in trouble. She is offering a free online photography class next week for people in the community. I love the idea of freely sharing skills in this crisis.

2. On the town Facebook pages, there’s a lot of confusion about whether or not people are allowed to walk outside, especially since town parks, fields, and tracks are closed. Getting outside for a walk is extremely important…
It’s best to have a super strong immune system BEFORE we get sick. So, we should be quitting smoking, hiking, running, eating well. More than ever, we should be outside walking.

A daily walk is essential for one’s mental health and surviving social isolation. On my walk yesterday, I saw some neighbors and waved, but they were on the other side of the street. Too far away to spread infection, but close enough for a smile and a wave.

Once we get sick, which will happen, lots of evidence shows that sunlight and fresh air helps.

3. An extremely generous and kind and awesome friend texted me yesterday to see if she could donate $$ to the church food pantry that my dad runs. It feeds 800 families per week, btw. There’s food insecurity everywhere. Here’s what I will tell her:

Wait. The states are passing a bunch of legislation that will deal with food insecurity immediately – millions for food pantries, added SNAP benefits, extended school free lunch programs. Besides dad’s food pantry is run with 80-year volunteers. It might have to shut down. I won’t let my dad go there now.

So, let’s wait to see where the biggest needs are in the coming weeks. It might be food delivery to old age homes. It might be running the food pantries. Money might be need more somewhere else. Pay attention to local social media for alerts for help.

4. Here’s a big need: online mental health support for students who are having huge spikes in anxiety. Young people went into this crisis with pretty crappy anxiety levels. They’re totally losing it right now.

Schools need to immediately learn how to use video conferencing software, like WebEx and Zoom. Like right now. Higher ed profs are using it, but not so much with K-12 teachers. These students need live, online, video mental health conferences with school social workers and psychiatrists.

If we’re going to triage the problem, help should go first to students with diagnosed issues — general anxiety/depression, autism, etc… This help is needed much more than another math worksheet.

Newsletter, Life On the Curve

Life on the Curve, Coronavirus, Part 2
Apt. 11D

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I first started hearing about Coronavirus in late February, around the time that Ian was admitted to the hospital for a few days from a bad side effect of his epilepsy medicine. In fact, the virus was a common chitchat subject with the health care workers who came in to change his IV tubes and inspect his mouth. I asked them if they were worried, and they would shrug. Handling crises is part of the job. 

On March 3rd, we heard about the first local case. A man in Westchester tested positive. He infected his neighbor who drove him to the hospital. A quick ten minute drive to the hospital puts a man in a ventilator? Ah. Then we learned that before the man got sick, he was all over the tristate area, my backyard. 

That same day, people who pay attention to these things started preparing. And so did I. Over the next ten days, I stocked the pantry with $700 worth of food. I finished articles and closed up every loose end for work. I got my son home from college and yelled at my parents to stay in the house, until they finally listened to me. I disinfected counter tops, door handles, gear shifts, toothbrushes. I washed towels over and over. We got money from the ATM and filled the cars with gas. The home office was set up for two adults to work comfortably. With two kids being home schooled and two adults working in the house full time, I had to stock up on paper and ink at Staples. 

Whew! I was exhausted, but firmly ensconced in a personal bubble by Friday, March 13th. We were ready to stay at home with no contact with outsiders for at least two weeks. But that’s when I had to start writing articles about the education angle of this disaster. I was particularly worried about how kids with disabilities were going to fare with the changes to online education. All weekend, I pumped out words.

I began to worry about my friends on Facebook, who seemed to be entirely unconcerned about the coming disaster. They were on another planet from the Twitter people, so I started posting more there, too. 

While I managed several articles in various stages of completion on Monday, March 16th, we began Day One of the horror that is home schooling. The first few days were rough with issues with technology, unfair expectations on parents, issues about how to work around my kid’s disabilities. With all the pressure that I’ve been under and important messages from editors, let’s just say I was less-than-gracious with teachers who inundated my mailbox with perky chores lists. I will make amends tomorrow. 

I’ve been in such a panic for the past couple of weeks that I haven’t been able to see past the crisis in front me. But this afternoon, I put a pause on the writing efforts. I’ve got something coming out tomorrow and that’s enough. I don’t have to write ALL the articles. I popped in my earbuds and went for a walk around the neighborhood.

For the first time in days, I wasn’t writing in my head as I walked. I just walked and looked around and listened. 

As I listened to The Daily, the podcast for the New York Times, Andrew Cuomo talked about infection curve graphs. By social isolating early, he was hoping that our infection trajectory curves were closer to countries like Singapore, than Italy. 

He also said that we were about 45 days away from things getting really, really bad. In five weeks, all these worries about Ian’s math homework and getting Jonah’s crap out of his off campus housing at Rutgers are going to feel so small. We’re way low on the curve on this crisis. We won’t see the peak for quite a while.

We’re just a plot point between an x and y axis right now. Life in a math equation. 

The trick in all this is to respect the math — don’t be like the idiots hanging out in beaches in Miami and bars in Chicago — but to defy the tyranny of the math at the same time. We have to enjoy life and find beauty in the midst of this war. We must loudly declare, “I will not be a plot point!”  

Now that we’ve overcome the initial panic of preparation and are getting used to the new normal, we’re rebuilding our lives. Later today, I went on a second walk, this time with the boys. We took a two-mile hike through the neighborhood, while kicking an old soccer ball that was slowly falling apart. Dumb, right? We were amused for an hour with a soccer ball that sprung a ever-growing tumor. 

The four of us are eating and drinking and talking together without competition from friends’ beer parties or Kumon math classes or girls’ nights at the pub. 

We are cooking up a storm; tonight we’re popping some individual pizzas on the grill. There’s a glass of wine keeping me company as I write this newsletter. 

There’s no doubt that the next month is going to bring challenges that we can’t even envision right now, but I’m so grateful to have these few weeks to prepare. Prepare not just in terms of meat in the freezer, but prepare with a better understanding of priorities and time to enjoy my family. 

Be well, everyone!